Chicken, Seafood, Soup

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

After the storm that dumped more than two feet of snow on the DC region, Super Bowl Sunday broke clear and bright. We had plans to watch the big game with a rabid Saints fan who announced his intentions to support the hometown team with a keg of Abita, red beans and rice, and the finest flavors of New Orleans. Naturally, I wanted to show my support. I spent a great deal of time in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina – for a couple of years I had an ongoing case in Baton Rouge and used to look forward to traveling to New Orleans the night before a hearing to eat at some of my favorite restaurants. I offered to bring some classic Louisiana dishes to the party – gumbo, étouffée, and maque choux.

Louisiana Creole cuisine is mostly city food, blending classical French, Spanish, and Italian techniques with local ingredients. Cajun cuisine is the more rustic food of Acadiana – the parishes where French Acadians predominate – and favors simpler techniques. Nonetheless, the two cuisines share common ingredients – the “holy trinity,” a mirepoix of onion, celery, and green pepper; liberal use of chiles and herbs; and smoked pork products.

There are as many kinds of gumbo as there are Louisiana cooks. Gumbo includes either okra or filé powder from the sassafras tree – indeed, the word “gumbo” likely derives either from the Bantu word ngombo, meaning “okra,” or the Choctaw word kombo, meaning sassafras. Okra and filé never are used together – it’s one or the other. The choice of okra or filé reflects the traditional seasonality of local ingredients – seafood and shellfish gumbo call for okra, and chicken (and game birds) call for filé. Generally, a roux – flour cooked in hot oil or fat – provides additional thickening. In Cajun gumbo, a dark, coffee colored roux provides deep flavor and rich color; in Creole versions, a lighter roux prevails, and tomatoes supply the color. Over time, a Creole-Cajun hybrid has emerged, combining roux of varying intensity with tomatoes for flavor. Tasso ham and andouille sausage lend additional smoky flavor, whether the other ingredients come from land or sea.

Étouffée is the quintessential Creole dish, meaning “smothered” in French. Like gumbo, the étouffée relies on a base of roux (of varying intensity) and the holy trinity, cooked in the roux. Unlike gumbo, étouffée demands a specific technique and more limited ingredients. Once the trinity cooks in the roux, add stock made from the main ingredient – crawfish stock, shrimp stock, or crab stock – and simmer the thickened, saucy mixture until the floury taste of the roux cooks off before adding the shellfish. The method is similar to making the classic French mother sauce, velouté, in which stock is added to a roux of equal parts butter and flour, although étouffée has a thicker consistency, more like a béchamel sauce.

As a nod to New Orleans – a Creole city in the main – try these recipes for chicken and andouille gumbo and shrimp étouffée. And for a taste of Cajun cooking, try the maque choux, a simple corn and pepper stew.

Chicken and andouille gumbo

If you cook the sausage in the gumbo, it will give most of its flavor to the liquid. For this reason, I generally favor cooking the sausage separately and adding it to the gumbo shortly before serving. You can infuse the gumbo as it cooks with rich smoky pork flavor by simmering a piece of tasso ham, smoked pork, or another andouille sausage, but remove that meat before serving.

I dislike green bell pepper so I always use Cuban peppers. If you use green bell pepper, remove the skin if you can, to avoid an unpleasant texture.

Sprinkle filé on each portion just before eating, at the table. Never add filé to the pot of gumbo as filé-thickened gumbos may not be brought back to a simmer or the entire dish will become stringy and gummy. If you don’t have access to filé, or you want to try okra in your gumbo, feel free to use it – follow the optional directions below.

1 c vegetable oil
1 c flour

3 Cuban peppers (or two green bell peppers), seeded and diced 1/8″
2 large or 3 medium onions, peeled and diced 1/8″
6 stalks celery, peeled and diced 1/8″
8 cloves garlic, minced or mashed to a paste with salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

4 bay leaves
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme

7 c chicken stock
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 lb boned and skinned chicken thighs, diced 1/2″
3/4 lb okra, sliced into 1/4″ rounds (optional; use if omitting filé)
1 lb andouille sausage, or another coarse-textured smoked pork sausage such as kielbasa, diced 1/2″
1/4 tasso ham or smoked pork, diced 1/4″

Seasoning Salt (recipe below)
salt and pepper
hot sauce, like Tabasco or another Louisiana hot sauce
Scallions, sliced thinly on a diagonal
Minced parsley
Filé

Cook the roux. In a large, deep pot – at least 6 quarts – heat the vegetable oil until it shimmers. Add the flour and whisk well to avoid lumps. Whisk or stir with a wooden spoon continuously over medium heat as the roux darkens. It will begin to smell quite toasty. Keep going, and make sure to keep stirring. You want a roux that is nearly the color of coffee, a rich mahogany.

As soon as the roux reaches that color, add the onions. Stir well and allow the onions to cook in the roux a couple of minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the celery, stir well into the roux, and cook a minute or two more. Finally, add the diced peppers and garlic, stir well into the roux, and cook another minute. Add the cayenne and stir well.

Add the stock slowly, whisking to incorporate the stock into the roux. Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, the thyme and the oregano, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 45 minutes to eliminate any floury taste from the roux. Add the diced chicken and simmer another 15 minutes. If using okra, add it now as well.

While the chicken cooks, place a skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, add the diced andouille or kielbasa. Reduce the heat slightly and cook the sausage until browned. Remove the sausage to a bowl using a slotted spoon, leaving the fat in the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and add the diced smoked pork or tasso, cooking until browned. Remove that to the bowl with the sausage using a slotted spoon. After the chicken has cooked, add the sausage and ham to the gumbo and simmer another 15 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves. Season with 1 1/2 tsp Seasoning Salt; adjust heat with Tabasco and add additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve on steamed long-grain rice, garnished with scallions and minced parsley.

If the gumbo is not okra-thickened, pass the filé at the table – diners should sprinkle just a small amount, less than 1/4 tsp, on their gumbo just before eating.

Chicken and andouille gumbo

Shrimp or Crawfish étouffée

1/4 c vegetable oil
3/4 c butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 c flour

3 Cuban peppers (or two green bell peppers), seeded and diced 1/8″
3 large or 4 medium onions, peeled and diced 1/8″
6 stalks celery, peeled and diced 1/8″
8 cloves garlic, minced or mashed to a paste with salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp paprika (if you can, combine hot and sweet)
8 canned tomatoes, diced
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

4 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme, tied together

6 c shrimp or crawfish stock (chicken stock is fine), made from the shells
3 lb shrimp or crawfish meat (weight after shelling)

Seasoning Salt (recipe below)
Hot sauce, like Tabasco or another Louisiana hot sauce
Salt and pepper
Scallions, sliced thinly on a diagonal
Minced parsley

Cook the roux. In a large, deep pot – at least 6 quarts – heat the vegetable oil and butter until it the butter begins to bubble. Add the flour and whisk well to avoid lumps. Whisk or stir with a wooden spoon continuously over medium heat as the roux darkens. This roux will not darken considerably and will take longer to darken. Eventually the roux will reach the color of peanut butter.

As soon as the roux reaches that color, add the onions. Stir well and allow the onions to cook in the roux a couple of minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the celery, stir well into the roux, and cook a minute or two more. Finally, add the diced peppers and garlic, stir well into the roux, and cook another minute. Add the cayenne and paprika and stir well. Finally, stir in the tomato paste and the diced tomatoes, cooking another minute.

Add the stock slowly, whisking to incorporate the stock into the roux. Add the Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes, bay leaves, and the bundle of thyme, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about an hour minutes to eliminate any floury taste from the roux. Add the shrimp or crawfish and simmer another 10 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves. Season with 1 1/2 tsp Seasoning Salt; adjust heat with Tabasco and add additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve on steamed long-grain rice, garnished with scallions and minced parsley.

Shrimp and langoustine étouffée

Seasoning Salt

This seasoning salt combines the spices underpinning Creole and Cajun dishes. Store it in a jar with a tight lid so it stays dry.

1/2 c kosher salt
2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp paprika
3 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp dried thyme, crushed
2 tbsp dried oregano, crushed

Combine all the ingredients. Ensure the blend is well-mixed before use.

Maque choux

Maque choux is best in the summer, when corn and tomatoes are fresh, and you can scrape the corn cobs to extract their sweet, milky pulp. That said, frozen corn is a good product and canned tomatoes are available all year (and, sadly, usually taste more of tomatoes than the fresh supermarket product even in summer). So if you want to try this dish year-round, dig a bag of corn out of the freezer and open a can of tomatoes.

3 tbsp bacon fat or butter
10 ears corn, shucked and kernels cut off the cobs (reserving cobs), or 2 10-ounce bags frozen corn
1 large onion, diced 1/8″
2 stalks celery, peeled and diced 1/8″
3 Cuban peppers (or two green bell peppers), seeded and diced 1/8″
4 cloves garlic, minced or mashed to a paste with salt
6 canned tomatoes, diced
1/3 c heavy cream (if not using fresh corn)
1/2 tsp dried thyme or leaves from 4 sprigs fresh thyme, minced
salt and pepper

If using fresh corn, scrape the corncobs with a chef’s knife, from end to end, over a bowl to extract the milky corn pulp.

Place a large and deep pot over medium heat. When hot, add the bacon fat or butter. Ad the onion, celery, peppers, and garlic and sweat until vegetables are tender and translucent. Add the corn and the thyme, and cook another 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the reserved corn milk (if using) and lower the heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until corn is very tender – about 20 minutes.

If using the cream, add it now and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Maque choux

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2 thoughts on “Laissez les bons temps rouler.

  1. Lapsed Chef says:

    Thank the Lord I was at the Superbowl party and got to enjoy these delicious dishes. Thanks for the super-tasty Southern nourishment – and endless gratitude for posting the recipes!

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